LEXINGTON -- Laurens almost yanked victory from the jaws of defeat on Friday night, but River Bluff’s 21-14, 3-overtime triumph was mainly a matter of the Raiders playing hard but not well.
The game was a mess.
For 46 minutes and 20 seconds, the Gators seemed to have an extraordinarily stable 7-point lead. It would’ve been an ever more stable 14-point edge had the Raiders not stuffed River Bluff (2-2) on 3rd-and-6-inches and 4th-and-3-inches, respectively.
With that, a mistake-prone stalemate between two football teams looking as if they had just put on the pads turned into something of a cliffhanger.
“We’ve had three really close games. We’ve had a chance to win all three in the 4th quarter, and we didn’t win either one of them,” Laurens head coach Daryl Smith said. “I think our guys will respond well.
“Sooner or later, that’s going to start going our way. I really believe that.”
Up until the ending, the game was not without its flaws.
Laurens junior quarterback James Rawl Jr. had a rough night. He completed only 6 of 18 passes and was intercepted 3 times. The Raiders (1-3) coughed up a couple fumbles -- one was Rawl's -- and they were penalized 13 times for 95 yards. If the officiating crew had been paid by the flag, it would be spending Christmas on the French Riviera, or, perhaps, having rotator cuffs repaired at the Mayo Clinic. The penalties were a filibuster on the smooth flow of the game.
The refs assessed 44 yards in penalties against River Bluff, but Laurens had two gains of more than 50 yards negated by flags that flew far behind the runners streaking down the sidelines, though not without cause. The Raiders have lost three times by a cumulative margin of 15 points. In the season to date, Laurens has scored 1 more point than it has allowed but lost two more games than it has won.
In the 3rd quarter, Laurens’ Michael Mankaka intercepted a Hunter Sheppard pass in the end zone and inexplicably ran it out, where he was pinned at the 5.
River Bluff was no model of efficiency. Sheppard connected on 14 of 28 throws for 2 touchdowns and 129 yards, but was picked off twice.
“I think our defense played great,” Smith said. “On offense, we got some yards. We’ve just got to punch it in. Penalties and mistakes are killing us.”
For all that, the Raiders almost won. The teams were a yard apart in total offense (Laurens led 299-298) and Rawl was one of four Laurens backs to rush for between 36 and 62 yards. Rawl had the 62, in 9 carries. Tye Roberson had 57, Zy Todd 52.
Jayden McGowan, who had the touchdown called back, caught 3 passes for 23 yards. None was officially longer than 14.
Gray Herring, the Gators’ undersized scatback, rushed for 77 yards. The power back, Toriaun Leaphardt, gained 62.
With 11:40 to play, River Bluff’s Drew Surratt intercepted Rawl after it had been redirected. That set up what could have been a game-clinching drive for the Gators. After having 1st-and-goal at the 9, Sheppard failed to get the ball into the end zone on 2nd down. Laurens’ penultimate penalty was its shortest. Offsides gave River Bluff 3rd and 4th downs from about 3 inches shy of the goal line. The Gators couldn’t push it in.
Referring to the goal-line stand, Smith said, “You don’t see many of those. We had an offsides penalty and they couldn’t even move the ball. We were able to stop them, and I was proud of them for that. It’s a rare deal.”
With 1:40 to play, Rawl ran 9 yards,for a Raider touchdown -- finally -- and Roberto Luna kicked the game-tying extra point.
Finally, the jinx that hung over the lovely stadium struck the home team. Laurens miraculously failed to recover a botched pitch, but the Gators managed to go 3-and-out in only 22 seconds and then punt miserably, giving Laurens possession at its own 49.
Rawl hit McGowan at the 37, then scrambled himself to the 17. With 9 seconds left, Luna lined up a 34-yard field goal that sailed wide right and sent the game into overtime.
Neither team scored in the first overtime. Both scored touchdowns in the 2nd, and River Bluff added another on its turn in the 3rd. Laurens ran out of downs, and the game ended when Rawl’s 4th-down pass was too high for McGowan’s fingertips.
Next up for Laurens is a hastily scheduled trip to North Augusta on what was originally scheduled as an open date. After losing the game a week earlier versus Daniel, Smith managed to replace the Lions.